Half the fun of drinking in Tokyo is navigating the city’s dense and daunting interior, where some of the best bars are tucked away in unimpressive buildings, down side-street alleys or in office building basements. Hidden within the bowels of this glittering, Technicolor maze you’ll find everything from a collection of serious natural wine bars second only to Paris in their depth of offerings to a variety of tachinomi, or standing bars, meant to be enjoyed like the tapas bars of Spain: Stop in for a couple drinks, a grilled and skewered meat dish, seasonal pickles or squid fermented in its own guts (shiokara) before moving on to the next spot. The city can often feel as if it’s one, big moveable feast, and it’s best enjoyed this way.
If it’s sake you’re after, izakaya destinations run the gamut from dark, smoky joints to sleek, modern bars where Tokyoites convene for post-work drinks and dinner. Regardless of the environment, the focus is on the marriage of sake and food. And if you don’t read Japanese (English menus are still a rarity here) a request for “osusume” will get you the bar’s recommendation, while “omakase” indicates a desire for the staff to pair sakes with your food as you go (don’t hesitate to ask about the pricing options ahead of time).
More recently, Tokyo has become renowned for its idiosyncratic cocktail bars, which are often tiny, polished and project an unmatched attention to detail. With space in such high demand, many of these destinations are found in discrete lanes and down back staircases, and range from the new eight-seat Bar Gen Yamamoto, where seasonal produce and original formulas reign, to stalwart Bar High Five, where the ice is just as important as the classic cocktail it chills. The common thread between the old and new guard is the bartenders’ reverence for technique and meticulous treatment of ingredients, whether a traditional gin or a housemade absinthe.
Tokyo is a city that truly juxtaposes all that is new and shiny with extreme respect for process and ritual, often resulting in a confusing hybrid of avant-garde theatrics and a stoic respect for the past. Yet somehow, in context, it all makes sense—especially with a drink in hand. —Yukari Sakamoto